Banned Without a Cause?

In the Right

What a shamefully discriminatory institution is the U.S. military! None can dispute the damning fact: our armed services continue to persecute one particular group, forcing its members to choose between service to country and self-expression. If it is your misfortune to belong to this marginalized minority, you can forget about a military career unless you hide your true identity in the shadow of the closet. Can we watch unmoved as our compatriots suffer the bitter bite of bias? Can we permit this brazen affront to the Most Holy Ideal of Equality? Nay. We cannot. We must not. Let the military be banned from Harvard forever!

I am referring, of course, to current military policy against Sikhs.

As an outward expression of their faith, Sikh men wear beards and wrap their long hair in turbans, all of which is prohibited by military rules. The implication for would-be Sikh recruits is obvious. If you want to keep your religion, fine. But don’t tell us about it. Wear a beard, grow out your hair or don a turban, and you’re out. Surely this policy is unfair. Biased. Discriminatory. Right?

“No, no, no!” cries the discerning reader. “You’ve entirely missed the point. The military has no choice but to enforce uniform physical appearance for the sake of discipline, unity and battlefield recognition. True, Sikhs’ appearance keeps them out of the American military. But these regulations aren’t designed to discriminate. They simply reflect the reality that, in the military, behavior has to be controlled more tightly than it is elsewhere.”

Well, that was certainly a close call. I was worried for a minute that, in light of the anti-Sikh policy, we might have to exile Harvard’s Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) to an undisclosed location in Kendall Square. But having seen the rationale of the rule in question, we can breathe a collective sigh of relief and go our merry ways.

Or at least until somebody replaces the word “Sikh” with the word “gay.”

Of late, there has been no shortage of sparring over whether ROTC—which is denied University recognition due to the military’s controversial “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy—should be invited back to Harvard. But there is one thing all sides—even ROTC supporters—seem to agree on: keeping open gays out of the uniform is a discriminatory act. Witness, for example, the words of John F. Bash ’03, whose opinion piece on this page began with the all-too-easy admission that “the United States military has an undeniable anti-gay bias” and went on to explain why that bias should be overshadowed by our desire to fill the military’s senior ranks with the “progressive thinkers” that only enlightened Harvard can produce.

What nobody mentions is that the military enforces all kinds of behavioral controls that are at odds with the civil liberties civilians enjoy. Enlisted soldiers and officers alike aren’t allowed to comment on political candidates or parties. Sex between personnel of different ranks is forbidden. Adultery is a crime worthy of court martial. And some restrictions even target groups protected by Harvard’s anti-discrimination policy: women, for example, are barred from certain combat units, while foreign citizens and people with some physical disabilities can’t enlist at all.

Yet nary a word is spoken against these regulations. No one cries for justice when deaf aspirants are turned away from flight school or foreign students learn that ROTC isn’t the club for them. We seem to recognize that in an organization where survival itself depends on individual competence and absolute trust between members, there can be grounds for having rules that differ from what we normally deem acceptable. In this light, the mere fact that a restriction exists, or that it is group-based, doesn’t make it discriminatory. What really matters is whether there is a reason for the restriction. What, then, of “don’t ask, don’t tell?”

I’m not fully qualified to say whether the exigencies of military service require a ban on open gays, and neither are the activists and professors who oppose ROTC’s return. But the proposition isn’t totally implausible. The same sexual tension and concerns about privacy that undermine group cohesion when men and women live together in close quarters might also arise if open gays were fully integrated. Some will respond by reminding us that opponents of racial integration once justified their position by making a similar appeal to the importance of unity. But while the racial prejudice of half a century ago could be expected to disappear with education and experience, the same cannot necessarily be said of strains that might emerge from permitting homosexual behavior. There is, after all, no cause for race to provoke feelings of uneasiness. But knowing that one is, or can become, an object of physical attraction seems inevitably bound to alter the group dynamic.

Nobody should be kept from doing anything without good reason. But it takes an act of mental gymnastics to leap from that principle to the conclusion that any group-based restriction is unjust. If Harvard wishes to trivialize the importance of military service by turning its back to the cadets and midshipmen of ROTC, it ought at least to justify its position with more than mere assertion. ROTC detractors can only win their case by proving that prohibiting homosexual behavior is unnecessary and persuading us that we should be more worried about whatever harms arise from that prohibition than about promoting the national defense.

Until they do, one can’t help but wonder if the shrill pitch of the ROTC debate has less to do with anti-gay bias than with the fact that homosexuals happen to be one of the groups deemed sacrosanct by the priests of the sensitivity cult. If so, then ROTC is simply one more sacrificial lamb immolated on the altar of political correctness.

Jason L. Steorts ’01-’03 is a philosophy concentrator in Dunster House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.